Jews usually interpret the Divine decree, “And they shall make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them,” as written in the Terumah portion of Exodus, as a reference to God taking up residence among the Israelites once they built the first-ever synagogue.
But nowadays, Jews often take the Torah passage to mean that human beings can bring holiness into all the significant places in their lives — homes, schools, synagogues and more.
For a particular group of Jews in the Philadelphia region — those who have chosen real estate as their profession and have become very, very successful at it — their faith means bringing a sense of holiness into the neighborhoods they impact, whether it’s by bettering the lives of those less fortunate or keeping revered traditions of the past alive and improving on them.
It’s not surprising that Bart Blatstein likes to describe his niche as “transformational development” — creating newly vibrant communities out of neighborhoods others think are too far gone to salvage.
His own transformation from a Philly kid growing up Jewish to the president and CEO of Tower Investments, the company he built from one dilapidated property, took a lot more than luck. An entrepreneurial spirit, a social conscience and some chutzpah all made it possible, perhaps even inevitable.
Born and raised in Northeast Philadelphia as the middle of three sons, Blatstein graduated from George Washington High School and Temple University, where he was a pre-med student.
“Obviously, that didn’t work out. It had something to do with my grades,” he said. “My background in college didn’t prepare me for anything.”
After college, Blatstein went to work in the pathology department at Temple’s School of Medicine before getting a job at the Philadelphia Housing Authority as a scattered-sites manager in charge of PHA-owned properties housing low- and moderate-income families on blocks throughout the city.
“That got me interested in real estate. I started to devour books on the subject, and thought that if I could find a rowhouse in a tough neighborhood for a few thousand dollars, I could fix it up and sell it for a profit,” he recalled.
At 23, he found himself a home in a then-rough neighborhood — Queen Village — and did what he set out to do: fix it and sell at a profit. That was May 1978, and the business was born as Blatstein, 60, flipped one unit and then another. Tower Investments grew and morphed into a company specializing not just in residential building, but commercial properties, too.
Blatstein is perhaps best known for his work along the Philadelphia waterfront, particularly Northern Liberties, where his redevelopment efforts began in 2000 with the purchase of the old Schmidt’s Brewery. Tower holds more than 100 parcels of land on 28 acres, with 550 residential units and over 150,000 square feet of commercial and retail space developed so far. There are another 1,000 homes, an additional 350,000 square feet of retail space, and more on the horizon.
“Bart is driven by his need to create. He has an uncanny sense of foresight,” said fellow real estate developer Gary Erlbaum, president of Greentree Properties Corp. in Ardmore, who has known Blatstein for about 30 years. “His job in Northern Liberties is the closest thing to building a city within a city that anyone has accomplished. He basically made that area what it is.”
“It’s great to be able to do great and do well at the same time. The social feel-good component is about creating new areas for people to live and jobs for Philadelphia — rebuilding part of a city that others have shunted aside,” Blatstein said. For him, it means getting involved in the communities and making sure there are parks and recreation areas.
His Judaism helped shape that mission. “As Jews, we are told about tzedakah and giving back. That’s the social component of what I do,” he said.
Growing up, Blatstein lived directly across the street from Shaare Shamayim. “I was raised Conservative, and my dad was very active in the synagogue,” he said. “Living so close, I was in the synagogue a lot. I attended many minyans.” He recalled that Rabbi Arnold Feldman, now the synagogue’s rabbi emeritus, “would come out looking for anyone over 13, and he’d often point his finger at me!”
Although he is no longer affiliated with a congregation, Blatstein embraces many other Jewish causes.
The former board member of the Jewish Publishing Group — which includes the Jewish Exponent and Inside — with a one-year stint as president, served as a trustee of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and was also chairman of Federation’s real estate division. He is a former vice chairman of the Anti-Defamation League and has been honored by Israel Bonds and the Jewish National Fund for his contributions. Currently, he is national assistant treasurer of the Zionist Organization of America.
“He wears his Judaism right on his sleeve,” Erlbaum said. “He’s in full-time motion, doing things where others would just stop and smell the flowers.”
Blatstein is also active in other city causes: He sits on the boards of Community College of Philadelphia, St. Maria Goretti High School, Merion Mercy High School and Waldron Academy, as well as serving on the President’s Advisory Board and Board of Visitors of Temple University, his alma mater.
There are occasional forays elsewhere in the region when a property resonates with Blatstein. Four months ago, he purchased the lease of the Pier Shops at Caesars in Atlantic City, a four-story, 300,000-square-foot center that failed to meet its promise in a bad retail economy. The half-empty luxury mall — current tenants include Burberry, Louis Vuitton, Tiffany and Buddakan — was reportedly sold for about $2.5 million, a fraction of the more than $200 million originally invested in the property a decade ago.
“I like the turnaround story, being a part of the transformation of Atlantic City,” said Blatstein, who has a house in Margate. “To me, Atlantic City is home also. I came here a lot when I was a kid, and I have a lot of happy memories.”
(At press time, Blatstein was fighting a civil lawsuit filed in February by Caesars, in which Caesars Atlantic City President Kevin Ortzman asserts that as owner of the pier on which the Pier Shops mini-mall is located, Caesars has the right to approve of Blatstein’s purchase of the lease for the retail operation. Ortzman claims Blatstein and his group, Pier Renaissance, are “trespassers,” while Blatstein has accused Ortzman of seeking to co-opt his plans.)
How Campus Apartments president and CEO David Adelman got into the real estate business is the stuff of movies — with a very Jewish twist.
“Growing up, I had this wonderful mentor — like an uncle who’s not really your uncle,” recalled Adelman, 43. The man he refers to, Alan Horwitz, was a family friend who owned Campus Apartments, a real estate firm. When Adelman was 11, he bet Horwitz he could beat him in basketball — and lost. To teach him a lesson, Horwitz had the youngster do office chores for him to build character and get back the baseball glove and bank account passbook he’d forfeited.
Two years later, Adelman gave Horwitz his Bar Mitzvah gift — $2,000 — to invest. Horwitz used it to help buy a building for off-campus housing near the University of Pennsylvania. Today, his company, Campus Apartments still owns that building — and many more.
One of the largest privately held student housing companies in the country, Campus Apartments now owns and/or manages 34,000 beds in 25 states. Adelman has increased the company’s footprint through a three-pronged model based on strategic acquisitions, creative developments and owner-operator consolidation.
“I love Philadelphia. From a student housing perspective, it’s considered a large college town,” said Adelman, who lives in Haverford. He sees mixed-use communities combining housing with retail and restaurants as the future, appealing not only to students but to young families and empty-nesters, with the result of improving the city as a whole.
Unlike many of his friends growing up Jewish on the Main Line, Adelman resisted going to college at Temple, Penn or anywhere on the East Coast. “I really wanted something different,” he said. He opted for Ohio State University, where he graduated with a bachelor of arts in political science in 1994.
After graduation from OSU, he joined Horwitz’s company, Campus Apartments, full-time as a property manager, eventually becoming majority owner of the company. Adelman, who purchased his first solely owned investment property at 17, was only 25 when Horwitz moved up to chairman and he took over as president and CEO.
Adelman serves on a myriad of local boards, many of them secular such as Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Foundation Board of Overseers and the University City District board of directors. Others are a testament to his Jewish faith.
“Growing up Jewish taught me to be charitable and give back. You can be charitable by making a donation or giving your time,” he said.
Adelman grew up in Penn Valley, “literally across the street from Har Zion,” the Conservative synagogue he still attends with wife, Halle, and their two daughters, 13-year-old Jade and 10-year-old Sage.
Adelman said his philanthropy really started about a decade ago, when he learned that about a quarter of the Jewish population of Philadelphia was living below the poverty line. As the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, he was also very motivated to become more involved in Holocaust remembrance events; today, Adelman serves on the Shoah Foundation’s Next Generation Council.
“He has a heart of gold when it comes to Judaism, Israel and preserving the memory of the Holocaust,” said Philadelphia attorney Steve Cozen, incoming chairman of the USC Shoah Foundation’s Board of Councilors. “David is not afraid to celebrate his Judaism in many ways.”
About six years ago, Adelman co-founded Jewish Federation Real Estate, under the umbrella of Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, on whose board he once served. The organization, now 375 strong, connects, engages and mobilizes the volunteer and financial resources of Philadelphia’s real estate industry on projects that impact critical needs and priorities of the Jewish community — from senior housing and food projects to Holocaust programming and Israel connections to camping and scholarships.
“David is a very charming and disarming young man, but when you get to know him, you realize he’s sneaky smart,” said Cozen, who has known Adelman for at least a decade and applauds his vision for mixed-use communities and other innovations. “He doesn’t try to overwhelm you with his sophistication, but it’s there. He knows where in the world to go for financing, and he’s an extraordinarily creative, out-of-the-box thinker.”
A nationally ranked top-producing real estate broker for the past quarter-century, Allan Domb has staying power. Named Realtor of the Year by the Greater Philadelphia Association of Realtors in 1992 and more than two decades later in 2013, he has been called Philly’s Condo King.
Domb, 59, grew up in Fort Lee, N.J., across the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan. There, he shared an 800-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment with his parents, Edward and Betty, and older brother, Peter. Even as a youngster, he was a go-getter with a solid work ethic. When he was 5, he and Peter (who passed away at age 44 from colon cancer) would shine shoes at a local bus stop, earning 25 cents a pair. Domb also had two paper routes, shoveled snow, mowed lawns and cleaned offices at Fort Lee High School after wrestling practice.
After graduating from Fort Lee High School, he attended American University in Washington, D.C., where he took evening classes while working full-time during the day selling security systems at Phelps Time Lock Service, based in Hyattsville, Md. He graduated from American in 1977 with a major in marketing and a minor in finance, and soon relocated to Philadelphia to manage the Phelps office there.
He expected to buy the business, where he tripled revenues; instead, he was offered a $10 weekly raise to augment his $15,000 salary. By then, however, attracted by a pitch he heard on Jay Lamont’s old “All About Real Estate” radio broadcast one Sunday morning, he had earned a license to sell real estate at Temple University’s Real Estate Institute.
“I needed the extra money,” Domb recalled about venturing into real estate. “It was go into real estate or be a waiter working from 7 p.m. to midnight at H.A. Winston at 15th and Locust.”
He quit the security business and sold real estate for two other companies before opening his own shop in 1983. He was attracted to the condo market after reading a book on becoming a “one-street specialist.”
“That happened to be the street I selected,” he recalled. “I was living in Academy House and decided to do condominium conversions — and become the best at it.”
Today, his firm brokers sales in such prestigious addresses as Academy House, The Dorchester, Society Hill Towers and Wanamaker House. With a staff of 15, his company leases residential apartments, condominiums and commercial properties and manages many of them.
In 1999, Domb became interested in repurposing historic buildings into luxury condominiums and the development of new luxury condominiums in Center City. He bought The Barclay Hotel on Rittenhouse Square, converting it into condos, and has also developed Parc Rittenhouse, The Warwick, The Bank Building Residences, The Lanesborough and 220 West Washington Square.
Raised in a kosher home, Domb still keeps a kosher kitchen in his condo at The Barclay. He was brought up Conservative and, although he no longer belongs to a synagogue, he returns to visit his parents — now residing in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. — every Yom Kippur, when he attends services at his childhood temple, Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, with his mother. His dad is no longer able to travel.
Domb holds Rosh Hashanah and Passover celebrations at his place — that is to say, at his delicatessen — Schlesinger’s, on Locust Street not far from where he once interviewed at Winston’s. He bought the building that houses the deli, and named it in honor of his maternal grandparents, who owned a luncheonette in West New York, N.J., during the 1920s.
There, up to 40 of his relatives congregate from Boston, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. “That’s become my synagogue,” he said.
In addition to his recent announcement that he is running for an at-large Philadelphia City Council seat, Domb serves on the Center City District and Friends of Rittenhouse Square boards and is president of two of the six condominium associations to which he belongs. He began a fourth term as president of Greater Philadelphia Association of Realtors on Jan. 21. Under his leadership, GPAR has changed its mission from the “Voice for Real Estate in Philadelphia” to the “Voice for Philadelphia,” focusing on good government and working with the city to solve problems such as delinquent taxes.
While the city is doing things to attract boomers and millennials, it’s not doing enough to eliminate poverty, Domb said. To give more opportunity to areas with the most need, he has become a proponent of a 20-year tax abatement for all city homes valued at under $250,000 while keeping the abatement at 10 years for higher-appraised homes.
“We need to connect Center City neighborhoods that are thriving with neighborhoods that are not thriving,” he said, citing recent figures that show 26 percent of Philadelphians live in poverty. “We can’t call ourselves a great city when a quarter of the population is living in poverty.”
Domb is an unabashed foodie. Besides his real estate ventures, he is an owner/investor and sits on the board of Starr Restaurant Organization, which operates 34 upscale restaurants in Philadelphia, Atlantic City, New York City, Washington, D.C., and South Florida, and Starr Events, a catering group and hotel division.
In addition to owning Schlesinger’s, Domb has invested in HipCityVeg, an expanding vegan restaurant concept based out of Philadelphia and founded by entrepreneur Nicole Marquis. He’s the landlord for two other Marquis projects: the vegan bar/restaurant Charlie was a sinner. at 13th and Sansom, and a vegan margarita/taco bar planned for an April opening in the old Crumbs Bake Shop location on 18th between Sansom and Walnut streets.
“I like investing with young people under 35 who have a concept,” he explained. “It’s good for the region and its culture. I’m not a fan of chains. I’m for creating great neighborhoods where you have local entrepreneurial residents. That’s the fabric of this country, and I would go out on a limb for them to succeed.”
For Alan Lindy, the family business means much more than earning a living. It means stewardship — preserving the legacy begun by his grandparents when they went into property management in their adopted city of Philadelphia more than 80 years ago.
With fewer than 200 employees, the now Jenkintown-based Lindy Communities manages 34 communities, 6,200 apartments and commercial spaces. The company prides itself on rescuing old sites and returning them to past glory.
”Jewish values are instrumental in managing the communities and our personal commitment of time and resources,” said Lindy, a former board member at Reconstructionist synagogue Or Hadash in Fort Washington, where he has also served on various committees and enjoys Shabbat discussion groups. “Lindy Communities is our opportunity to provide quality homes, strengthen neighborhoods, promote environmentally friendly lifestyles and, when profitable, support giving back.”
He is currently keen on the company’s Towers at Wyncote — acquired last year — calling it a “most exciting venture” to upgrade the former Cedarbrook Hill Apartments with top amenities. Pennsylvania’s largest high-rise community used to be known as a premier location for Jewish seniors, although the population is now more mixed.
“The Towers at Wyncote, preceded by Meadowbrook Apartments in Abington Township, will probably keep us busy for a bit,” Lindy said.
While the company offers commercial rentals elsewhere and operates communities in Florida and Ohio, its focus remains on Philadelphia, with 90 percent of the business here. “It’s where our grandparents set down roots, where our parents built their lives, and where our lives are centered, too,” Lindy said. “So we are here partially because of history, partially because we love it and also the business is challenging in and of itself when it is nearby.”
Lindy, 60, and his siblings, Franklin D. and Elaine, grew up in Cheltenham and attended Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park. Not only are his siblings involved in the family business, but so is Lindy’s middle son, Jacob — oldest son Joshua, father of Lindy’s first grandchild, is a teacher and youngest son Jeremy is in public relations.
After graduating from Cheltenham High School, Lindy attended Drew University in Madison, N.J., and went on to earn a master’s degree in education from Antioch New England Graduate School. He remained in Massachusetts, going to work in the human services field. But after his first child was born, Lindy moved his family back here to be near mishpachah.
Lindy’s grandparents, Jacob and Freeda, had set down roots in Philadelphia after moving here from Jackson, Tenn., starting an appraisal and property management business in 1933 and building Sedgwick Gardens, a West Mount Airy luxury apartment community, in 1939. In 1961, Alan Lindy’s father, Philip, and uncle, Alan, built Westgate Arms in Jefferson, Montgomery County — also still among the Lindy properties.
Alan Lindy and his siblings grew up with parents firmly committed to Philadelphia’s Jewish community. When Philip Lindy passed away at 83 nearly two years ago, he was president of both Tribe 12 (a network for Jewish engagement for 20- and 30-somethings) and the Gershman Y. Annabel Lindy founded Limmud Philly (a Jewish communal “learningfest”) and The Collaborative (events for Jewish 20- and 30-somethings).
Frank Lindy took over for Philip at Tribe 12 and Elaine followed suit at the Gershman. Both serve the Philadelphia Higher Education Network for Neighborhood Development, and all three siblings are involved in their parents’ initiatives serving the city through Drexel University — the Lindy Scholars Program serving West Philadelphia middle school students, the Lindy Center for Civic Engagement and the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation.
“Alan is a wonderful steward of the Lindy family legacy at Drexel. That legacy starts with the entities bearing their name and extends to their behind-the-scenes impact on efforts like our Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships, where Phil Lindy secured the site we renovated and Alan Lindy serves on the advisory council,” Drexel University President John Fry said. “Alan embodies the family philosophy that real estate is not primarily about closing deals, but rather about building communities.”
Lindy serves other nonprofits, including the city’s After School Activity Program, Legacy Youth Tennis and Education, Urban Affairs Coalition, the Mural Arts Program and Jewish Family and Children’s Service. He is also an active supporter of Federation Housing, Inc., the American Jewish Committee, the National Liberty Museum and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. He also serves on the AJC board, where he continues his father’s advocacy work.
“Alan cares deeply about making a difference, most especially for people who don’t have the opportunities he had growing up. Through his real estate work, he builds communities physically, and in his interactions, he builds communities interpersonally,” said Rabbi Deborah Waxman, president of the Wyncote-based RRC and Jewish Reconstructionist Communities. “I have been inspired by how he and his siblings are continuing their parents’ philanthropic commitments and how he is putting his own stamp on those commitments.”
Barbara Rothschild is a frequent contributor to Inside and the Jewish Exponent. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.